A friend who coaches football once told me when players say they can’t do something, he repeats what they said and adds the word “yet”. It was something he’d learned studying neuro-linguistic programming. Say these two sentence out loud and see how you feel:
“I can’t do that.”
“I can’t do that yet.”
Over time, players were doing things they hadn’t been able to do previously. They’d internalized the idea that it was only a matter of time before they were capable.
While neuro-linguistic programming may not have full support in the scientific community, it is not the only practice that examines the links between language and the affect it has on people. Semiotics is the study of signs; the relationships between and amongst signs, the meaning we denote from these signs and the affect it has on us. Words are signs. What is the meaning we derive from words?
While I don’t claim to fully understand semiotics, this much is clear from interacting with people: there’s the definition of a word (or many definitions), then there’s the “meaning” of a word. Each person assigns their own meaning to words based on their experience with it. The actual definition is only one part of that experience.
As a business analyst my job depends on my ability to understand the definition of words and how these definitions may vary in specialized professional contexts. Ask a developer, a librarian and a systems engineer what “interoperability” means and you’ll get three different “definitions”. My success depends on my ability to draw out not just the definition of words, but the “meaning” my clients and colleagues have assigned to these words. We can only move forward once we understand each other.
On a practical level, what I mean is this: I often find myself in the position where my job is to communicate a shared understanding (or draw attention to the lack of a share understanding) as a starting point for change. So how important is it to understand the meaning of words? What is the impact of words and their assembly into sentences and paragraphs in the process of change?
The words we use matter. The way we place them in a sentence, the words we choose, even the words we think, influence those around us. Sometimes words betray our true thoughts and opinions, even to ourselves. A previous boss gave me the advice to avoid using “us vs. them” language when working with other teams in the organization. Simple advice, yet powerful in practice. Instead of “I’m doing this and you’re doing that”, ”we” worked on things together.
A dear colleague with whom I worked closely provided insight into my words. I had a habit of saying “Yes, but…” she told me. ”The ‘but’ is cancelling out the ‘yes’. All I hear is that you disagree with me.” Whoa! The words I used had the opposite affect of how I intended them; time to change.
Speaking of time to change, a friend brought my attention to the book Heal Your Body by Louise L. Hay. Not yet through the first couple pages, I’m already nodding (my stiff, inflexible neck) to phrases like this:
“Our consistent thinking patterns create our experiences. Therefore, by changing our thinking patterns, we change our experiences.”
I’m going to try the exercise Hay recommends and write down anything I say more than three times this week. She says:
“The way to control your life is to control your choice of thoughts and words. No one thinks in your mind but you.”
I’d like 2012 to be a year of doing things I haven’t been able to do, yet. This is the start down a new path in my life’s journey using words to influence my own behaviour. For someone who’s success depends on words to influence change, what better place to start than with myself?